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Worried About Your Art? Trust Your Instincts!

Sunday, 8. May 2011 23:39

In one of her books, Julia Cameron talks about how work has to be nurtured and protected while it is being developed. As you may remember from a previous post, I mentioned that I was working on a new project with a completely new approach. I did as Cameron suggested, not discussing the project with anyone, while working away. But recently it became time to let the project see the light of day, at least in a limited way.

Since I waffle between confidence and insecurity, as I’m sure many of us do, I decided to show a set of 8 images to 5 acquaintances whose opinions I generally respect. Because this work, which is in abstract photography, is so different from what I have done in the past, I had no idea what the responses would be. The idea was to discover whether there might be a market for this sort of imagery or whether I was going to have to continue making these sorts of pictures exclusively for myself.

Admittedly, this was not a scientifically valid test. It was just an attempt to get reactions—to validate my instincts as it were. My “group” consisted of another photographer, an art professor, an English teacher, a graphic artist, and a theatrical designer, all of whom have seen my past work.

The request was simple. Individually, I handed them an iPad with the images on it, told them what size they would eventually be printed, and said, “Tell me what you think.” There were no explanations, no artist statement, no nothing else.

The results were as varied as the audience. Here is a summary of the responses:

  • All pointed out things they liked; some pointed out things they disliked or found disturbing for some reason.
  • Two people were very specific in verbalizing why they liked what they did and did not like what they didn’t.
  • Two offered thorough critiques, one detailed and one summary.
  • One person “liked” only one image and felt that that image was far superior to all the others.
  • One of the viewers offered some excellent constructive criticism and some suggestions which caused me to look at my new approach in even newer ways.
  • One felt compelled to guess at the technique/process and guessed incorrectly, which may have colored her initial response.
  • One person “loved” two of the images, found one “creepy,” and one significantly less good than all the others.
  • One person ranked his favorite four and gave explanations for the order, some of which had to do with the images, and some of which had to do with his aesthetic.
  • One auditor seemed to understand at least part of what I was trying to do and verbalized it perhaps better than I could have.
  • Two saw “faces” in the abstractions, in different images. This seemed to be disconcerting to them. (There were no intentional faces in the images).
  • Everyone had a favorite, but no two people had the same favorite.
  • Two people expressed an interest in owning one of the images, or one like them.

What does all that mean? To me this means that I’m doing something right. I would have been very surprised, and I think a little distressed, if all these people “loved” everything I put before them. It means I can continue to trust my instincts and move forward in the development of this idea.

Although I thought I needed reassurance, I should have known to trust my instincts. You should too. Make your art. Do your photography. Write your play. Make what your instincts, your guts, your soul tells you to. As Anatole France has said, “In art as in love, instinct is enough.”

Category:Audience, Creativity, Photography | Comments (1) | Autor:

Uncomfortable with Self-Promotion? Take Baby Steps

Monday, 18. April 2011 0:05

One of the things there is no shortage of is advice on how to be a “successful” artist. Make no mistake; in this context “successful” means “an artist who sells.” Sometimes it means “an artist who makes his/her living from his/her art.” In any case, it’s all about marketing and sales. And why not? Being a starving artist may sound like a romantic idea, but it’s only that. We can all point to artists who were successes only after they were dead, but is that the model you really want to follow?

The fact is, whether we are painters, photographers, sculptors, ceramicists, or writers, we want people to see our art, and hopefully be impacted by it. So we have two choices: give it away or sell it. The second alternative seems to be the better of the two, at least to me.

We are told that we must self-promote, and the implication is that we should model ourselves after the most financially successful self-promoting artists. We are encouraged to follow the examples of those who promote shamelessly and/or exploit the internet. We are advised to spend every minute that we are not actually producing art interacting on Twitter or Facebook or our blogs and websites or engaging in some other form of marketing and sales.

This can be a difficulty for those of us who do not have art factories or assistants or those of us who do not believe that we are temperamentally suited for marketing. Some would say that we had better find a way to make the time and become suited or resign ourselves to giving our art away, or, like Emily Dickenson or Vivian Maier, having it found and made public after we’re gone.

There is no question that marketing and sales are necessary if we want to succeed in terms of putting our work out there into the world. We must promote our own work and we must figure out ways to become comfortable doing that.

This means researching and exploring the many different venues and approaches to art marketing and sales. Spend some time analyzing tweets, exploring Facebook, reading blogs, examining web sites. You will find that there are innumerable approaches and a variety of styles. And there are more all the time. According to Barney Davey, how artists promote themselves is constantly evolving, and one of the challenges is to try to keep methodology current.

Not every successful artist is a completely shameless self-promoter. Some promote better than others. Study them; see what works and why. See what appeals to you and why. See what fits you and why.

Then try some of those methods out. Take baby steps. Move out of your comfort zone a little at a time. As you build up your courage and your repertoire of possibilities, you can begin to see what works for you. And that, finally, is the most important thing, to find the methods or combination of methods that work for you.

Category:Audience, Communication, Social Media | Comments (2) | Autor:

The Vivian Maier Phenomenon

Sunday, 16. January 2011 23:17

In case you haven’t heard of Vivian Maier, she was a nanny who also did a significant amount of street photography in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily in Chicago and New York.  Maier shot well over 100,000 images of people and places she encountered on the streets, and as far as anyone can determine, never really showed them to anyone.  Some of her work can be seen in a couple of places, along with what is known of her story. One site is a blog run by the discoverer of Maier’s work, John Maloof, who owns the majority of her photography.  A second site is operated by Jeffrey Goldstein, who holds the balance of her work.

The discovery and publication of Maier’s work has triggered a multi-faceted discussion on the internet: Who was this woman and why was she so passionate about street photography?  What was her life like? What was she like? What did she know about photography? Why did she not try to show her work while she was alive? How good is her work compared to other contemporary street photographers? Compared to all street photographers?  Why is the discovery of her work significant, or is it?

Some writers broaden the discussion: What is the point of street photography? How is her photography connected to her life? Is her work important? Is her work good art? Is it art at all? What makes it art or not? What are the differences, ultimately, between amateurs and artists?

Of course, it is far too early to determine where Maier fits into the world of American street photography, or American photography in general, but indications are that she is beginning to be considered important and, according to David W. Dunlap, writing for the Lens blog of the New York Times, is being compared to contemporary masters. If you want to know why, Dunlap advises that you take the time to look at her pictures, and suggests that you will then know why.

And Kevin Moloney, for one, is convinced that Maier’s work is definitely art: “I believe Maier’s work is art because of its absolute purity….Hers is the work of an artist who worked only for her own satisfaction. The opinion of friends, relatives, editors or critics was never sought.”

While I agree that Maier’s photography is art, and that some of it is quite remarkable, this story has some other interesting implications. Maier, the photographer, was discovered because John Maloof bought her work in an auction a few years ago. Since then, thanks to Maloof, the world has learned of Ms. Maier. Before it is over, she may become one of the most famous street photographers ever, simply because of the way her work is now being marketed. Works are released slowly on the web; a one-woman show has been curated and mounted; a documentary film is being financed through internet contributions. The story has enough mystery to be continually intriguing. Her work is obviously worth looking at. All the elements are here. What she chose not to do during her life, others are now doing for her and to great effect. As Kevin Moloney observes, “What is accepted as art and who is defined as an artist is as much about marketing our narratives as it is about anything else.”

It causes one to wonder how many other Vivian Maiers there are out there with their negatives and prints filed in storage boxes, their canvases stacked in attics, their sculptures covered in garages. How many are there who don’t have the know-how to market themselves, or don’t have the interest. How many are there who make art only to please themselves. One wonders what other great art we are missing…

Category:Photography | Comments (1) | Autor:

Giving Art Value Through Social Media

Sunday, 26. December 2010 23:59

In his book, How Pleasure Works, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom says some very interesting things about art and the art world. He takes on experts, noting that they can be fooled, sometimes famously, as in the Vermeer/van Meegeren episode and then have to quickly change their opinions to conform to the facts.  He poses a list of why we like art from an evolutionary/social/psychological point of view, and, in a different chapter, states that there are three reasons we appreciate or value art: context, history, and perceived essence. He also maintains that all art is performance, that is, it is meant, is made, to be seen by an audience.

Interestingly, the reading of Bloom’s book coincides with some other thoughts that have been occupying me for the last little while, specifically, the conflicting advice that one finds for artists. One writer will advise the artist to find a niche, even if it’s not the artist’s favorite thing, in order to be salable. Another will advise the artist to follow his/her own inclination, noting that to do anything else is hypocritical and unsatisfying. Many advise networking regardless of whether the artist is trying to sell his/her work directly to consumers/collectors or whether he/she is trying to go the representation/gallery route. Almost everyone recommends networking via social media, which can take on a life of its own, completely unrelated to anything to do with art.

All of this networking is a way to provide those three factors that Bloom says give value to art work. In other words, if we are somehow able to give our work context, history, and perceived essence, then it will, in many people’s eyes become valuable. And if it becomes valuable, people will want to collect it and will be willing to pay for it, regardless of whether we have found a niche to streamline our market or not.  What better way to provide those three features than by exposing ourselves in a public network situation, particularly one or more of the internet’s social medial.  We can, without leaving our homes or studios, provide the requisite history and context for our art work on an on-going daily, or even hourly, basis.  Given context and history, it becomes quite easy to take the next step and communicate how our essence is tied up in the work that we produce.

All that remains is manipulating the social media to insure that our information falls into the right hands, that is, the hands of potential patrons or publicists—and there is certainly no shortage of advice on how to do that. Once it’s done, we have fulfilled the requirements of giving our art value, and the results should take care of themselves, assuming that we actually produce art. Then it simply becomes a matter of continuing to feed the flow of information, capitalizing on events in our lives and artistic development to enlarge our following and thus our potential customer/collector base.

Sounds cynical, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is; it is business, after all. I’m still a fledgling at this whole social media thing and learn every day, but I can’t but help believe that Bloom is onto something, and that social media may be a way to do it. There aren’t many of them, but there are a few artists who have managed to turn social media into a really useful tool for advancing their art, some of them very successfully, if we are to believe what we read. Many are still trying to find exactly the right formula.

It does not seem to be a “one-size-fits-all” phenomenon; just as in establishing an artistic path, each artist must find his/her own social media route. Not an easy task. It is a complex problem but integrally involved with producing art today. It is a topic that I have touched on before, and probably will again and again, because, regardless of the path we choose, this is part of the art business in the 21st century and we cannot ignore it.

Category:Audience, Social Media | Comment (0) | Autor:

Process and Product

Sunday, 14. November 2010 23:54

The theme of a number of conversations I was involved in this week was the notion of process in the artistic universe. “It’s all about process.” “You have to go through the process.” “You can’t throw out the process just because you are unhappy with the product.” “The process is constantly being refined. It’s how we learn.” These are just a few of the statements I have heard in the last seven days.

Most artists I know would agree with the first quote. When asked whether their work is about process or product, the vast majority will answer “process.”  We are taught in schools and workshops and discussions that it’s all about process. Many of us believe it on the basis of experience.

My experience as both a stage director and photographer has borne this out, at least to a point.  A younger director, who had opening night nerves on the third night of the run, once asked me if it ever got any better. I told him that it did not, but it does. It gets better when you realize that what you do as a director comes to an end once the curtain goes up. There is absolutely nothing you can do to impact the outcome of tonight’s performance; you might as well not be there. Often I am not, as is the case with many directors. They have come to realize that it is about the process. Once you have done what you can do to make the production the best it can be, given the tools you have to work with, your task is completed.  No amount of anxiety will make the production be any better than it is.  Your job is to take the production through the rehearsal process and then turn it loose. You conference, cajole, coerce, and sometimes conjure to make it what you can, according to your vision. You create; then you are done. Your product, if you have one, is then in the hands of the actors and technicians.

As a photographer, you involve yourself in at least two very different processes: that of setting up and capturing the image and then that of post-processing, of arriving at a final image. It is much the same as theatre, but a bit easier to summarize, and ending with a tangible product (if you commit to print). You do what you can do to create the best you can create, and then you are done.

However, once you are done, once the process ends, there are all those resultant products.  As Plotinus said, “In the realm of process anything coming to be must come to be something.”

Sometimes, we become so wrapped up in process that we don’t quite know what to do with the product. Some of us do nothing. However, others us decide that we must deal with the product as well as the process. Then we move into a different mode. Then we become marketers, salesmen, negotiators, showmen. We worry about getting the product in front of someone. We are concerned with how our product will be perceived. We hope that we will find someone who will be able to recognize what it is and appreciate it. Sometimes that can get in the way of the artistic process; sometimes it can be integrated so that it becomes part of that process.

Regardless of how we view the product, regardless of how much product we produce, we must return again and again to the process. We must acknowledge that process is a major building block of creativity. And we must learn to trust those processes we have developed and are developing to create product that will communicate whatever we have to communicate. Participating in the process is what we do; participating in the process is making art.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (2) | Autor:

A Question of Audience: For Whom Do We Make Art?

Sunday, 7. November 2010 22:30

Conventional wisdom says that we make art for our audience. Contemporary experts tell us that we make art for our markets and that if we do not have a market, we should go out and develop one. We should commercialize our art.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to the commercialization of art. No one in theatre who is honest could be. Theatre is inherently commercial; you must sell tickets or you cease to exist. Theatre producers hold to the axiom, know your audience.  Those who do not, or will not learn are destined to be unsuccessful, regardless of the work they produce; only accidentally will they hit the mark and satisfy their particular public.  Even those who are considered “cutting edge” have knowledge of the audience who will be occupying the seats and appreciating (or not) the work that they do.

Perhaps the same axiom applies to all artists. Perhaps success is measured in terms of sales. We certainly have people telling us that developing a clientele is the way to be successful in the world of art, no matter which path we choose to take in that world. And there is no shortage of advice on how to do that: we are counseled to limit what we to do a specific style and create niche markets to occupy. We are also told to exploit social media, to basically turn ourselves into a brand, and our art into a business.

But in the face of all this advice I wonder what happens to the artist. Does he/she become merely a producer of the commodities demanded by his/her public? Does he/she find that pandering to the market (a charge often leveled against musical artists who become popular) leads to a more financially rewarding life, a more artistically satisfying existence?  Does the market take over? I am reminded of stories of writers who were so compelled to write that they would scribble on napkins, toilet paper, matchbooks rather than deny their art.  Certainly, the market was not on their minds.  In fact, most of us did not get into the “arts game,” as a friend of mine called it recently, to get rich.  I know an artist who claims that she would “live in a cardboard box” before she would abandon her art. I hope it does not come to that, but it does illustrate the nature of the artistic impulse.

Some great artists were and are also great marketers, shifting between the roles of artist and huckster with ease, each approaching his/her market in a unique and profitable way. This is what I hope the pundits are trying to tell us.  If we want an audience for our art, we must figure out a way to sell it, and we can rely on no one but ourselves. This does not mean that we pander. It means that we, like savvy theatre producers, locate those people who can and will appreciate and support what we do, who will eventually, we hope, pay us for it.  If we do not succeed in our marketing efforts, we have still made the art. We have still created that which we had to create.  Because regardless of sales effort we do or do not undertake, we make art because we have to. We are, in a sense, our own audience because, ultimately, we make art for ourselves.

Category:Audience | Comments (1) | Autor: